Wednesday, February 22, 2012
State of the unions
There comes a point in every debate where both parties become wrong; it’s part of what makes American politics great, or at least entertaining. Even Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus* and saw Atlanta burn during the Civil War.** Like William Sherman, Lincoln’s firebug general, the University of Michigan’s “Students Against GSRA Unionization” and their allies began to march stubbornly in that familiar direction Wednesday when the State Senate passed a bill to define Graduate Student Research Assistants as students – and therefore unable to unionize – for all posterity. SB 971 now moves on to the House of Representatives and we safely enter that all-to-typical political territory where both sides of an issue sides start making missteps.
*Only in Maryland
The bill would put to rest an argument that has been brewing since the Graduate Employees Organization, a union on campus that represents teaching assistants, among others, began efforts to absorb GSRAs (and the dues that comes with them) in last year. In what has (unsurprisingly) turned into a rather bitter fight, the bill would trump earlier Board of Regents ruling and essentially end the GEO’s hope of assimilating us innocent researchers in a gluttonous quest to broaden its reaches to the furthest edges of campus.
If you can’t tell from the previous sentence, I think the GEO would be the confederacy in this whole convoluted analogy. GSRA’s at the University of Michigan don't need a union - especially a compulsory one. Stipend and benefits are extremely competitive,* the administration is open and responsive, and I don’t see my friends and colleagues suffering under the thumb of ruthless principal investigators. By most measures, this is a pretty transparent power (and money) grab by the GEO.
*And, at least for engineers, guaranteed for five years.
Nevertheless, even if we don’t need a union now, there is absolutely no reason we should give up our right to form one later – or compromise the rights of students elsewhere in the state* to do the same. It is pathetically naïve to assume that just because relations between GSRAs, professors, and administration are tranquil now, they will remain so forever. As policies and expectations change, the ability to collectively bargain could become an asset for graduate students. To advocate such a casual dismissal of our rights is not only foolish, but indicates an absurd level of trust in our dear leaders.
*Don’t forget, this would be a state law, affecting universities and colleges across Michigan, not just UM.
Regardless of university faculty and administration, changes may be coming to graduate education anywa. The National Academies of Science has released two reports entitled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” that examine the future of science education in America. The second report has the subtitle “Rapidly approaching category 5.” Clearly, they do not think everything is hunky-dory in Collegeland, USA. While the reports do not specifically call for changes that would drastically affect GSRAs, they do acknowledge significant shortcomings in our post-secondary education and research system and, more importantly, serve as a reminder that we must be prepared for change in at least some capacity. As critical stakeholders in this whole university education and research thing, GSRAs need a seat at the table if/when these issues are discussed. It’s not inconceivable that the best way to achieve that would be through unionization.
Throughout all this, there is still no compelling reason for GSRAs to unionize. However, if SAGU really has the best interests of GSRAs at heart, they need to consider the long-term ramifications of their actions. Sacrificing the rights of future students to serve present needs, makes about as much sense as torching Atlanta. Even if Abraham Lincoln had to break a few eggs to make an omelet, SAGU and its allies are making one heck of a mess in the kitchen.